Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Uncle Ted

Former Senator Ted Stevens died yesterday in a plane crash -- the traditional death of real Alaskans. Stevens, aka, Uncle Ted, and Senator-for-Life made Alaska what it is today: the site of the largest per capita federal spending in the country. He did this by shamelessly demanding more huge, expensive, and often ludicrous pork than anyone else in the US Senate. No small feat. As his Senate seniority grew, so grew the pork pie. This endeared him to Alaskans in such a way that even though a merciless and smelly Federal ethics and corruption trial in the midst of an election year did cost him his Senate seat, it was a squeaker. But Senator Stevens also secured the loyalty of Alaskans by taking care of them. Not just with bridges, airports and radar installations. But with passport problems, tardy social security checks, and tributes. He was famous for his angry outbursts on the Senate floor, but that was the only place he did that. He was a warm, sharp, approachable politician when on his home turf. Almost everyone who's lived in Alaska for more than a few years, regardless of their political views, has a happy story about Uncle Ted. Here's mine.

I was on my first book's publicity tour in the fall of 1985 -- a complete and beer-soaked rube with a hardback tucked under my arm and one foot back in Alaska and a small construction business. I still had roofing tar jammed under my fingernails as I signed books in Boston, New York, Philadelphia. On the way to Washington DC I got word that Senator Stevens was planning a reception for me at the Capitol. To put this in perspective take the meager, oddball celebrity I have today and divide it by 162. In the firmament of American stardom I was one dim blink of a passing satellite. And a United States Senator was throwing me a party.

He'd invited the Washington press corps and many of them came to the ornate room in the old Capitol Building, not because of me, but because he'd invited them. I was ignorant at the time of the prominence of most of them, but I do recall chatting with James Fallows for a few minutes at the bar. The most comfortable conversation I had was with the bartender himself who was embarrassed and actually said to me, "You should go talk to someone else." Then the Senator swept in.

I was meeting him for the first time, but Stevens put his arm around me like we were old war buddies. He introduced me at length and without notes to the assembled press and asked if I'd read something from my book. After I'd read a couple of things, the Senator worked the room with me at his side. He didn't stay long and the party broke up soon after he left, but the glow of that day remains even now.

I disagreed often, if not always, with Stevens' policy positions but I voted for him every six years and would have the last time too were I still an Alaska voter. I owed him that. A lot of Alaskans who disagreed with him felt the same way. However the world may remember him otherwise, Ted Stevens was a first rate politician and exactly right for the time and the place in which he lived.

Ted Stevens' death in a plane crash, for all its tragedy, is the perfect ending to his story. Had I thought of it I would even have wished it for him. Rest in peace, Uncle Ted. And thanks again.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You'd wish that he die in a firey plane crash? I'm thinking like a widow or his family members who'd wish he'd die, if he had to die, peacefully in his sleep of old age. You were fond of him him, you voted for him, and you say it was fitting for him to die in a firey plane crash experiencing panic & fear as hs last emotions. Wow. How should someone you hold in lesser esteem pass away?

-Too afraid of your deathwish to sign my name,

1:25 PM  
Blogger TheRealDaddyP said...

Anonymous, you are forgiven. You have no concept of life in Alaska or what the metaphor meant. And I won't even comment on how it is that you, of all people, knew his emotions, prior to the accident.

Paul McGuire
Anchorage, AK

8:05 PM  
Blogger Tricia said...

Relax Anonymous. I'm pretty sure you're safe from the Bodett Wrath.

I'm sure Mr. Bodett is only saying that it is fitting for Senator Stevens to have escaped this world by way of a plane ride through his beautiful state of Alaska. Far more appropriate than even dying in his sleep in his DC lodgings.

We Alaskans are all (well mostly all) devestated at his loss. The shock is still fresh. But he was amongst friends and doing what he very much loved to do. Perhaps this is the most any of us can hope for when our time to pass comes along.

8:16 PM  
Blogger PersNproud said...

Tom, I said (myself) after I blotted some tears that found their way out that at least he was in Alaska doing something he loved with friends.

I doubt that he would have wanted to die in bed; least of all in a hospital setting poked full of tubes! I think most know exactly what you meant.

I always appreciate hearing your common sense take on things.


8:39 PM  
Anonymous Lauren said...


First, LOL at your sign-off.

Second, have you seen this bumpersticker:



Whether you have or not, I hope that's broken the ice.

A little about me: I am have lived in Alaska for nearly 40 years, deducting six years for college and four weeks for my age on arrival. Once, I watched this blog's host read for one of his radio shows. And once I stood behind him and his child in a check-out line in Homer. But he wouldn't know me from anyone else, even if he saw me wearing my XTra-Tuf boots.

At any rate, I hope it will take the edge off your understandable vehemence to learn that there was no fire in the plane crash. Indeed, what little we know gives us reason to hope that the end was mercifully quick for those who died in the crash.

I'm now old enough to have been close to several people who died of old age; too many of them after lingering, humiliating, and nearly unbearable processes.

I've also had a couple of friends pass away suddenly and peacefully in their sleep. All right, perhaps that's not quite true; I can think of only one who passed away that way. But perhaps I'm forgetting somebody.

My point is this: in my experience, the ideal of passing in one's sleep, without first fading beyond recognition, is seen as the exception and not the rule. I expect that it's not a bad way to go, but truly I'd prefer to be doing something I loved - and to still be fully capable of doing it - when it's my turn.

Though we'll never be certain, all signs are that "Uncle Ted" had the great good fortune to pass in a manner that he would have chosen above many other more protracted and burdensome endings.

I hope that your own time is far away, but that when it comes, you are at least as fortunate.


10:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom! Nice piece. I have been trying to reconnect with you and Rita -- I'm in Texas, of all places! Here's my email: . .. write! Love to catch up. Yeehaw, and all that. My best, Kim Rich

12:32 AM  
Blogger Ty said...

As a fellow Alaskan I can completely understand your sentiment of appreciating this being the way he passed and voting for him even when you didn't agree with his views. His fierceness in the senate brought the state a lot of money and he was a kind caring guy when you were one on one with him. May he rest in peace.

1:38 AM  
Anonymous TB said...

Anon. You miss my point. Like Will Rogers, Hale Boggs, Nick Begich, not to mention Buddy Holly -- death by plane crash is choice of heroes. The hero part is what I wished for him, not the panic and fear.

9:09 AM  

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